Jeanette Kamman's Library For Orphans

Searching for the beginnings of the self and the end of the world in 100,000 cast-off books

THE KAMMAN-DALE LIBRARY FOR ORPHANS, located in three adjacent houses on St. Paul's west side, occupies the better part of 30 rooms, sundry stairwells, various closets and cupboards, and two bathtubs. Although the library was recognized in the 1977 edition of The Hill Directory of Library and Informational Resources, it has received few visitors over the years, and it has no formal lending policy, no cataloging system, no regular hours, and intermittent electricity.

The library's founder and sole custodian, a small and somewhat disheveled St. Paul woman, has long been the subject of speculation and bemusement among local book collectors. For the past half-century, the woman, who is known variously as the Book-Bag Lady, the Book Bag-Lady, or simply the Book Lady, has been materializing at local secondhand bookstores, church-basement bazaars, sidewalk flea markets, estate sales, and going-out-of-business liquidations. She has no demonstrated concern for the value of the books she buys, and she shows no particular interest in selling or trading them. Yet she unfailingly gathers dozens of volumes and wobbles off beneath a cascading hillock of cast-off histories, out-of-date textbooks, discarded high school yearbooks, and dog-eared paperbacks. As best her fellow collectors can divine, the books are all destined for the library, rumored to be a vast repository of genealogical information.

Even those who know Jeanette Kamman by name have only cloudy notions of her purposes. Clark Hansen, a local collector of books about Minnehaha Falls, met Kamman in the

Michael Dvorak

early 1970s when he was running a bookstore in Minneapolis. "She came in and just sort of started pulling books off the shelves," he recalls.

After learning that Kamman had no means of transportation, Hansen offered to drive her and her books home. He has kept in close contact with her over the years, and he reckons that he now knows her as well as anyone does. He occasionally delivers carloads of books that he thinks may suit her tastes--no easy task, since Kamman's collecting encompasses vast swaths of literature and history, philosophy and flotsam.

"She has such an enormous area of interest that it's hard to pinpoint," Hansen explains. "She's interested in history and genealogy and the origins of things. She sees connections in everything. That's an important feature in the psychology of her collecting: She's trying to draw connections between all the branches of human endeavor."

Hansen also drops by Kamman's home from time to time. Like all of her guests, he remains perpetually astonished by the sheer magnitude of her bibliomania. No one who has seen Kamman's library can say with certainty how many books she has amassed. Hansen used to estimate her collection at 50,000 volumes, which would rank it alongside many of the city's smaller public libraries. The current aggregate is likely two or three times that. Kamman's library is of such vast and unwieldy proportions that it sometimes seems to be growing of its own accord. It has taken on the character of a creeping tropical vine, which, having found favorable soil in which to lay root, sprawls across continents.

The startling propagation of Kamman's library has also necessitated an expansion of its quarters. In 1977, discovering that she had filled the house she has lived in since 1968 with books and could no longer make her way from one end to the other without stumbling over them, Kamman bought the house next door. She filled it too, and in 1992 bought the house next to it as well, a dignified two-story Victorian that happened to be vacant.

Kamman's library is situated in the Selby-Dale neighborhood in a quiet, tree-lined area scattered with old brick churches and silent mansions. There is nothing outwardly remarkable about it except the stacks of books that crowd the window-panes--Kamman considers them the ideal buffer against traffic noise--and a sign taped in one window so that it faces the street, which reads, in the cut-and-paste lettering style of a ransom note, "They're Killing Us! Protect Yourself."

Kamman has long been possessed by the notion that the official representatives of the City of St. Paul mean her ill, and the sign serves to keep all but the nosiest of them away. City inspectors nevertheless drop by every few years to leave notices of condemnation on Kamman's door. One of the few officials Kamman tolerates is Fred Owusu, director of the city's Citizen Service Office: As a gesture of goodwill she sometimes gives him books about Thomas Jefferson, a subject in which Owusu has demonstrated no interest. He maintains that the city's inquisitiveness is primarily benign. "She's a very special lady," he says. Owusu worries, in particular, that Kamman might one day be buried by an avalanche of books and be unable to free herself.

Kamman is unimpressed by authority, however, and remains convinced that the inspectors intend mischief. "My books need a home," she often says with a note of defiance. Kamman has repeatedly petitioned the city for a zoning variation to make her houses an officially recognized library, and she has repeatedly been turned down.

 

Kamman's front door has been barricaded by books since a burglar broke in a few years ago to steal the stained glass in the transom. Instead, she now uses a side door that opens onto a small, overgrown plot of scrub trees and broken stones that she has dubbed the Garden of Eden. A fat gray rabbit lives in the brush, and on sunny days Kamman comes out on the stoop to commune with it. The rabbit's appearance is a highly auspicious occasion.

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